With 14 games in the books, most of the playoff teams have now been determined. Many of the previous top teams in their divisions have been passed by brash upstarts – including the Green Bay Packers. A changing of the guard has occurred this season in five out of the eight divisions.
The Minnesota Vikings, with a convincing 34-7 win over the Bengals, have clinched the division – they have a three-game lead over Detroit, and Green Bay is four games in arrears. For the Vikings, it will be only their second playoff appearance since 2012, but their second division championship in the past three years. They haven’t won a playoff game since 2009. The Vikings have fully earned their place at the top of the NFC North, having reeled off nine wins in their last 10 games. Their victims during this great stretch include the Packers, Rams, Lions, and Falcons. If the Packers are to regain their previous status going forward, they will have to surpass not only Minnesota but also Detroit – they’ve already lost to each once this year.
The upstart L.A. Rams traveled to Seattle on Sunday, a game ahead of the home team. They left with a 42-7 evisceration of that division’s customary top dog – and a two-game lead. This “statement” game wasn’t as close as the final score indicates – the Rams were ahead 34-0 at the half. Russell Wilson was sacked seven times. His passing yardage was only 142 – and his net yardage, after subtracting out the lost yardage on the sacks, was 71. The Rams, led by second-year QB Jared Goff are youthful, while the Seahawks are aging – especially on the defensive side.
The Dallas Cowboys were the darling of the sports pundits a year ago. Now they are 8-6, four games behind the Philadelphia Eagles – who were led until Sunday by that other acclaimed second-year quarterback, Carson Wentz. Even with backup QB Nick Foles (115.8 passer rating), the Eagles notched their 12th win – tops in the league – beating the Giants in New Jersey. Last year’s phenom, the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, ranks only 16th in passer rating this season and running back Ezekiel Elliott is just about to return from his six-game suspension.
While the division title isn’t settled yet, the bully of the division going into the season was supposed to be the Atlanta Falcons, who made it to the Super Bowl a year ago. Instead, they sit in third place with eight wins (pending Monday night’s game against the Bucs). Meanwhile, the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers are deadlocked with 10-4 records. The Packers unfortunately played the four NFC South teams this year – emerging with but one win, the overtime cliffhanger against the Buccaneers.
In what is the weakest of the eight divisions in the NFL, a leader has emerged. The Jacksonville Jaguars have 10 wins, versus the Tennessee Titans’ eight, the Houston Texans’ four, and the Indianapolis Colts’ three. The Jaguars, who have been stockpiling top draft choices for the last half-dozen years, finally have gotten some solid, though unspectacular quarterbacking from Blake Bortles (89.7 rating). It’s a seismic shift in the division, as Jacksonville had not won more than five games the previous six seasons.
In the AFC West, the Chiefs, at 8-6, are still the class of the division, though they lead the L.A. Chargers by only one game. The Raiders who had been predicted by many to win the division, have a disappointing 6-8 record.
Likewise in the AFC North, perennial powerhouse Pittsburgh, at 11-3, is three games clear of the Ravens.
The Patriots are the biggest constant in the NFL – at 11-3 on the year, they are three games up on the Bills, and will be going to the playoffs for the ninth consecutive year.